Monday, April 21, 2014

Who Knows Where Or When?

    It seems we've stood and talked like this, before.
    We looked at each other in the same way then.
    But I can't remember where, or when.

    The clothes you're wearing are the clothes, you wore.
    The smile you are smiling you were smiling then.
    But I can't remember where, or when.

     The lyrics of this song, brought back to me by seeing Diana Krall sing it, made me start musing on the role of Attire in our memory.  We all have memories attached to clothes we have, or have had; a favorite shirt, or a particularly uncomfortable pair of shoes takes us back to high school, or our first big dance.  The suit we had on when we landed a first real adult job, and the singular shape of a certain sundress, all these and many more can and do evoke deeply held emotional and intellectual memories.
                                                           -Redfern visiting dress-1907-

    Since what we put on our bodies affects us on so many levels, it stands at a unique place in its ability to convey our personal history back to our conscious mind.  Almost all our senses are engaged by the wearing of clothes.  Our sense of touch comes into use as a textile moves over the body, or how it feels when we run our hands across it. Our vision gets engaged constantly as we see not only the colors and patterns, but how the shapes shift continually as we move and express ourselves. Our hearing plays a smaller but significant role, since some fabrics have a unique sound as they move and rub against themselves; the rustle of taffeta, or the subtle wooshing sound of silk against silk.  And lastly our sense of smell gets engaged too, and informs how and why memory surfaces.
                                                           -Ralph Lauren F/W 2011-
     In my own life, sartorial memory has played a significant role.  I had, for many years a WWII army issue jacket that was my favorite thing, and when years later I had it copied in leather, and had the sargent stripes moved from the original to it, the new jacket became an icon piece, and imbued with history and meaning for me.  That piece of clothing, though I haven't possessed it for years now, is one I still recall with complete clarity.  I can feel it on my body, and I note the smell of the leather when it got damp from rain, or the sound it made when it moved as I wore it.  There are other clothes that have come into my life that I remember with equal, or greater completeness. My very first 3 piece suit, bought for me for my high school graduation by my parents, was one.  It was very much of its time and place since it was mint green embossed polyester, with dark green top stitching, and lapels out to THERE.  But I can see it, and feel it still.

    I believe that this memorecall we have about our prior clothes is one of the significant parts that makes Attire important in our lives.  It functions as a hook to our past that, because of the number of ways we engage with it, is more facile in its ability to create and maintain those connections, than other things we remember may be.
    And this connection to memory is another reason why coming to understand the language of Attire more fully is so important.  The more we know and understand of this sartorial tongue, the better we can understand our own memories that are connected to it.
    Returning to that jacket of mine, it was then, though I didn't know it at the time, a significant part of my growing understanding of myself as an adult person.  The original jacket of wool I know now was a signal I was giving to others about my sense of my maleness and my desire to be a sexually active person.  Connected to the military, and to expressions of both belonging to a larger cultural group, and also to male power and aggression, that jacket said far more than I knew at the time. As my understanding of those things grew the jacket changed. When I had it remade in leather it became a stronger, more assertive message of those things for me, and for those who saw me in it, ( at least, so I thought).  And in retrospect it has become a symbol of my own sexual explorations, and of my youth.

                                                       -yep, this is me back in the day-
    This same recall connection functions as more than a doorway to our own personal history; it also gives us an opportunity to connect with others, by sharing these stories, and so seeing our similarities, our often shared past.
    That, of course, only addresses what we feel for ourselves; how our memories of our own clothing invest our present and give added texture to our days. What is of greater significance is how other people's choices in dress affect our memories of them, and of our relations to them.
    My dear Hungarian grandmother will partly be alive in my memory for the eternal presence of print house dresses, and sensible orthopedic shoes. 
                                               -not my grandmother, but you get the idea-

    My first partner is connected in my mind to his predilection for wearing clothes from his college years that he could still put on.  A now departed co-worker lives on, in small part because his perpetually worn, baggy khaki's are still in my head.  And an old friend will be forever alive in my mind for the time we were on a bus and he started stomping his foot on the bus floor declaring that his foot had fallen asleep cause his Calvins were too tight.
    As an exercise I made myself try to draw up as many of these connections as I could, and I quickly lost track of them in their sheer number and variety. Sure, I'm a person who thinks of these things, and still, I suspect this is something that would well repay the trial to anyone who gave it a shot.
    Our shared history is in play here.  We can and do invoke our association to others, and bring it right to the fore of our mind's eye, by thinking of what they wore at such a time, or in such a place.


  1. Charming, thoughtful post, Paul. I, too, have memories of particular garments and, even more strongly, how I felt in them.

  2. Thanks so much Stephen. Your thoughts and opinions matter to me.

  3. Wonderful piece, Paul! Yesterday, I was reflecting on the Easter dresses of my youth, in particular shopping for them with my mom. It was always fun, and I ALWAYS gave them twirl test. I have a vivid memory of buying my favorite, which would in turn end up being my last "little girl" Easter dress.

  4. Thanks AD!
    Fascinating how we can mark our lives in this way.

  5. When I was 5 or 6 years old, my mom made me a Christmas dress of midnight blue velvet, with a gathered collar and cuffs of wide white lace. I wore it with white tights and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes that made a wonderfully grown up, clacky sound when I walked. I felt like an absolute princess, and every piece of clothing I have ever bought has been an attempt to feel as good as I did in that dress.